Informality and Nostalgia in Urban Space

Low-income urban communities are well-documented but poorly understood. When North American housing projects and British council estates appear in pop culture and the news media, more often than not they are portrayed as bleak, dangerous places. Worse yet, plans to redevelop these communities are often influenced (to varying degrees) by these same biases. This needs to be challenged and rethought as getting by on a low income is certainly hard, but there is much more to life in low-income urban communities than hardship.

It is often taken as common sense that low-income housing projects and council estates were failures of urban design, and that their residents would be better off if the projects were torn down and replaced with “mixed” housing. This understanding of urban “mix” is inspired, to a great extent, by the writings of Jane Jacobs dating back to the early 1960s. For Jacobs, an ideal neighborhood was “mixed” in several senses: in the demographics of its residents; in the size, shape, and age of its physical structures; and in the activities it offered for people who lived there or visited. The neighbourhoods best-suited to this sort of mix, Jacobs argued, were comprised of a grid of small, walkable blocks cross-cut by through streets. At present, the stated goal of many redevelopment projects is to replace low-income housing projects with neighbourhoods that fit this description.

Well-intentioned as her arguments were, Jacobs’s view of low-income housing projects was overly negative and simplistic. Because these projects were generally closed to through traffic, populated entirely by low-income earners, and comprised of uniform structures and wide-open spaces, they were anathema to her ideals. She went as far as to describe them as “dangerous, demoralizing, and unstable,” to the extent that they threatened “tolerable civilization in their vicinities.” From Jacobs’s day to the present, it has been taken as common sense that low-income residential areas are inherently prone to crime and violence; that everyone involved will be better off if subsidized housing is “mixed” with market housing and commercial space as much as possible; and that the benefits of redevelopment will far outweigh the disruptions.

But these assumptions do not stand up to the ethnographic data. In 2012, for example, a British study found little conclusive evidence that the creation of mixed-tenure developments had brought the intended positive effects on “social, human and economic capital.” In 2010, the US-based Right to the City Alliance published a report on public housing in six American cities, based primarily on input from residents. Far from the “myth of the hi-rise hellhole” that often appears in media coverage, the overall picture is that “public housing provides a strong sense of community,” that more of it is needed, and that it works fine even in the absence of social mix. Meanwhile, the redevelopment of housing projects as mixed-income communities as part of the national HOPE VI program since the 1990s had caused considerable and often traumatic displacement for American households, and a net decrease in affordable housing units.

I conducted two years of historical and ethnographic research in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood – Canada’s first public housing project, which is now nearly halfway through being rebuilt as a mixed-income community.  In speaking to 70 people who had lived there at various points since the 1960s, I found that the contemporary common sense of urban design was a poor match for many of the memories and everyday experiences of the neighbourhood’s residents. Though some people did feel that Regent Park had been poorly planned and unpleasant, many emphasized the pleasures and conveniences of life in a low-income enclave. Thanks to the self-contained design and lack of through streets, they could let their children play in the grassy spaces between buildings and supervise them collectively. By looking out for one another, holding impromptu get-togethers, and trading favors without keeping track (“generalized reciprocity”, in technical terms), residents built a strong sense of community through the informal, mundane patterns of everyday life. It was far from perfect, but the problems that people did face were caused by broader injustices – racism, stigma, an increasingly precarious job market, and a diminished social safety net – rather than the fact that the projects were comprised entirely of low-income households. The Right to the City Alliance found much the same with regards to American public housing projects of a similar age and design.

The ongoing redevelopment of Regent Park is officially referred to as the “Regent Park Revitalization” – as if a residential area with a population of at least 7,500 had somehow lacked life. It is an attempt to bring about social change through urban design that, so far, has brought some undeniably good things to the area: no one I interviewed was the least bit critical of the new indoor swimming pool, park, and arts and cultural centre with free and low-cost programming, for instance. It is also important to note that the plan is rooted in earlier campaigns by groups of residents themselves to have portions of the housing projects redeveloped.

Alongside new architecture and amenities, the Revitalization also entails “social” blueprints, such as plans for formal residents’ associations, town hall meetings, and participatory planning sessions based on models borrowed from business school. These plans are arguably well-intended and have yielded some important benefits, but they miss key aspects of how residents of low-income housing projects engage with each other and with urban space. The sort of informal community I found in my historical research does not fit well within today’s models for participatory planning, which cast neighbours as “stakeholders” and slot the messiness and unpredictability of community-building into flow charts and SWOT analyses. Youth tended to find these structures especially alienating, and tended to miss the very features of the old Regent Park that are deemed obsolete by the current common sense of urban design: wide-open spaces, car-free walkways, and a community comprised entirely of people “like us.” Rather than looking to the future, the young people I interviewed lived with a sort of nostalgia described by ethnographer Laurence Ralph in a low-income Chicago neighbourhood undergoing redevelopment: “a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed”.

Planners, architects, and policymakers would do well to review ethnographic research on how low-income people build community on their own terms, on how the problems afflicting low-income communities are often overstated, and how the problems that do exist are rooted in the broader systemic factors of discrimination and precarity. Urban redevelopment plans that rely solely on outside (and often outdated) models without taking into account critical and local perspectives risk alienating the same people they intend to include, and attempts to solve the problems faced by low-income communities without addressing their systemic causes are of limited benefit.

the author

Ryan James

Ryan James, PhD is an adjunct professor at York University.